Alastair Reynolds is one of those authors that I basically preorder as soon as I hear something new is coming out. It’s fair to say that I haven’t loved the more recent stuff as much as the Revelation Space stories (something I am sure authors just loathe hearing), but I still read it and (generally… Terminal World didn’t work for me overall) enjoy it.
Slow Bullets is a stand-alone novella about war and renewal, peace and struggle, time and identity and sheer bloody-minded determination.
Scur is a soldier, although she wasn’t meant to be. Peace has been brokered but when your war spans multiple solar systems, it’s hard to get the message out. Scur ends up in stasis… and when she wakes up, something is deeply, deeply wrong. For a start she’s told that most of the others on the ship are war criminals; for another, the planet out the window doesn’t look familiar. And the nav beacons, that are meant to help with interstellar flight, appear to be on the blink….
There’s a lot going on here, and I can’t help but feel it might have been better served either as a novel or a short story (maybe novelette). With the latter, you could cut out some of the side-plots and focus really tightly on Scur and her revenge-seeking (which I didn’t love partly because it got a bit lost with everything else going on, partly because I don’t love revenge stories). With a novel, there would of course be more scope to examine the reactions of different people to their predicament, and spend more time on the issues of reconciliation (the ship is populated with people from both sides of the war, and it’s unclear to all of them who is a war criminal and who is not) and rebuilding lives that must now be entirely re-thought (no one is going back to Kansas).
I really loved the idea that if your main database is being corrupted (accidentally but irredeemably), and you’ve got this enormous spaceship with blank walls all around you, there’s a really obvious way of recording your history and culture for posterity.
I didn’t adore it but I am happy to have read it.
In which 2014 is officially a thing. Who saw that coming?
We’re back! How did you spend your summer? (yes, we know some of you spent it having winter, but honestly, is that our fault?)
Galactic Suburbia returns for a fresh new year of culture consumed, awards commentary, feminist snark and adorable baby gurgles.
Alex: On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds; Riddick; The Deep: Here be Dragons; Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales (ed Paula Guran)
Alisa: Haven S1 and S2; Star Trek; Kaleidoscope submissions (PhD)
Tansy: Terry Pratchett: The Witches (board game), The Hour Season 1, A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan; When we Wake; Courtney Milan romance novels.
Pet subject: Gearing Up for Hugo Nominations – what we’ve read, what we recommend, and what we still plan to get to before the deadline.
Alisa: Reading – Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, Coldest Girl in Cold Town by Holly Black
Alex: Saga; Ancillary Justice; Iron Man 3; still to watch Game of Thrones s3
Tansy: Still to read: Hild by Nicola Griffith, The Red by Linda Nagata, some novellas. Liz Bourke’s Sleeping with Monsters (Best Related Work or fan writer? Why doesn’t the Hugo have an Atheling?) Kirstyn McDermott’s Caution: Contains Small Parts. Supurbia (Graphic Story); The World’s End.
Galactic Suburbia Award!!
for activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction
Send us your suggestions and thoughts on who we should be looking at for the year that was 2013: blog posts, podcasts, GOH speeches and other awesome people talking about feminist stuff in interesting ways.
Please send feedback to us at email@example.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!
Edge of Infinity is not especially concerned about Earth, but it cares deeply about humanity. It’s not blindly optimistic, but neither is it depressingly morbid. It cares about the little things and the big, it’s got romance and death, and lots and lots of adventure, set within our solar system but not on Earth. Also, space ships.
Pat Cadigan opens the anthology and immediately throws the reader into the position of deciding whether they can hack the displacement. “Nine decs into her second hitch, Fry hit a berg in the Main ring and broke her leg.” This, accompanied by the story’s title – “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” – is a very clear sign that Here Be Science Fiction; the sort of science fiction that requires the reader to do a bit of work, while trusting in the author that these things really will make sense. And, of course, they do; Cadigan is a marvellous writer who mixes the very weird with the quite familiar, and gently leads the reader to understanding where she’s going with her story. The unfamiliar language is used partly to warn the reader that this is not a situation they can just take for granted, but also because it’s entirely appropriate that language would change out there around the moons of Jupiter – perhaps especially, as in this case, when those living in an alien-to-humanity environment have themselves changed from the human standard, at least morphologically. Cadigan also makes some interesting points about how being “two-steppers” has impacted on humanity’s ways of thinking, especially with regard to binary decision making. At heart, this story is about choice: an individual’s freedom to make choices about their body and their livelihood and where they live. Just suggested in the background is also a broader discussion about political choice, too, with shades of James SA Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, about the place of Jupiter in the solar system. It’s a fitting opening to the anthology, flagging as it does many of the issues that resonate across the set.
Elizabeth Bear’s”The Deeps of the Sky,” which comes next, is the only story that focusses on aliens. Here again though the focus is on choice; Stormchases and his skiff have been out mining a storm for trace elements such as iron when a curious object appears in the sky, and he has to decide what to do about it. The plot is thus quite straightforward, but it’s the world building that makes this story an interesting one. As mentioned, it focusses on an alien society – probably living in Jupiter – and aside from the alien biology, the aspect Bear gives most attention is that of reproduction. Who gets to reproduce and with whom, and at what cost (…literally) is absorbing Stormchases, and therefore the narrative. And it is indeed different enough to cast a rather fascinating light on humanity’s own tendencies in those realms.
Bringing the anthology back closer to home (… again, literally) is James SA Corey’s “Drive”, a story that unfolds along two different temporal tracks: in one, Solomon has just taken off from Mars in his souped-up space craft; the other follows Solomon from his first encounter with Caitlin and their subsequent relationship. Like Cadigan, Corey envisages a solar system that is as uneasy with differentials in political power as it is with access to, and production of, resources. This provides much more of the narrative tension for Corey than it did for Cadigan; Earth’s attitude to Mars has an immediate impact on Solomon and his life. I’m excited to see stories like this one, despite its melancholy tone, because it puts the idea of colonising Mars squarely back into the realm of the possible, at least from an SF perspective. There’s no suggestion that it will be easy – quite the contrary – but at least humanity is there, reaching beyond our own troposphere. Somehow the idea of being out on Europa or Titan isn’t quite the same, even though the colonisation of Mars is generally a prerequisite of that further expansion.
Sandra McDonald and Stephen D Covey deliver “The Road to NPS,” similar to “Drive” in that it focusses on the issue of transportation – bringing to mind Samuel Delaney’s Nova, and the suggestion that once a civilisation expand beyond the solar system, transportation becomes the most important issue. For Rahiti, this presents a challenge he cannot leave alone – despite the threat, and very real danger, inherent in doing so. Rahiti is one of few antagonists of this anthology that I did not particularly connect to. I think this is partly because his motivation seemed to be entirely commercial – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it simply did not work for me. And he just didn’t seem like that nice a guy, overall.
The first AIs turn up in John Barnes’ “Swift as a Dream and Fleeting as a Sigh,” where, intriguingly, AIs are therapists. For humans. Which is about the most unlikely role I’ve ever read them in. This is one of the most complex stories of the anthology, narratively speaking. The “I” is the AI, and the narrative follows multiple threads. First, and appearing sporadically throughout, is the narrator’s own musings on its own capabilities – specifically the difference in subjective time that it and its human interlocutors experience. It draws a comparison for one of the humans: that “the ratio of [its] cycles of information processing per second to theirs is about the same as theirs to an oak.” In response to which, very sensibly, the human (eventually) asks what an oak would think about… which doesn’t seem to be the point, but perhaps from the AI’s point it is. Anyway, the story is a fascinating glimpse into what that sort of processing power might do (brain the size of a planet, and so on). The rest of the narrative involves the AI musing on its interactions with two humans it has counselled. Laura and Tyward see the AI for different reasons – Laura because of Ty, Ty because of an ant (a mechanical one). Their relationship, shown through the AI’s interactions with them as individuals, is poignant and realistic, even though I think the conclusion is a bit of a stretch. Finally, I’d like to point out how hard it was to write this without referring to the AI as ‘he’. I think this was because its character came across so strongly, and as humanly flawed rather than a remote perfect artefact, that it seemed wrong for it to be genderless. As for ‘he’ – well, yes. Aren’t all robots male? (sigh)
Paul McAuley’s “Macy Minnot’s Last Christmas on Dione, Ring Racing, Fiddler’s Green, the Potter’s Garden” wins for longest title. It, as a title, also covers the most important things that Mai Kumal learns about when she travels to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, on the occasion of her father’s death there. Overall this is a less a narrative, really, than a rumination on what humanity might do Out There, so far away from the safe little blue ball. Colonisation; extreme adventure sports; secretive colonisation; and outrageous, lavish works of art. This is definitely one of the more overtly optimistic pieces of the anthology. While it’s a bit sad that Mai and her father were estranged, this is set against a glorious back drop of humanity’s potential, both in terms of relationships and Grand Achievements. And I think it’s a wonderful dream, for that.
Taking quite a different tack, one of the narratively most straightforward stories is “Safety Tests.” Here, Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes a very normal, albeit still dangerous and necessary aspect of humanity + machinery – the idea of needing a licence – and explores it. In space. Using spaceships. Around an inhabited space station. Over the course of a single day, Devlin must deal with six quite different applicants for public piloting licences. Things progress from there about as Devlin appears to expect every day to progress. That is, poorly. There’s not much extra world building built into this story, but it’s the sort of situation one can imagine fitting into most any space-faring story (imagine Ellen Ripley or Han Solo going for their licences. I dare you).
“Bricks, Sticks, Straw” is my favourite story of all, so thank you very much Gwyneth Jones. Set very briefly on Earth, the focus is on four Remote Presence devices, operated by humans on Earth but physically located on the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Thanks to a solar storm, the link to those devices is severed, but the software agents… well. They continue to exist, and to operate, if in rather different ways from what their designers and operators would recognise. These manifestations are wonderfully thought out – how such software, designed to be intelligent and run programmes, might react to apparently being abandoned by their makers, and how they might interact after that happens. (It does make me wonder somewhat about the poor old Mars landers and rovers….) Sophie, on Callisto, is the focus of the story: she is both an array collecting data of the Jovian system; and a memory, or a remnant, or an avatar of the Sophie back on Earth. Of the four devices, she is the only one who both accepts this reality and thinks that getting back in touch with Earth is actually important. So this is the only story that does not imagine humanity having literally spread out through the solar system – yet, anyway; it’s also the story that feels temporally closest to Now. Sophie is delightfully engaging, and her concerns entirely realistic (within the bounds of the story, naturally).
Following a theme of Hannu Rajaniemi work in Jonathan Strahan anthologies (… that would be two from two, so maybe not a theme yet; the other one was “The Server and the Dragon,” in Engineering Infinity), “Tyche and the Ants” is the most magical-seeming of these stories, while – as the reader suspects throughout and has confirmed by the ending – having a very solid science fictional basis to everything; it’s the perception that lends the magic, not the action. It also comes close to the Jones story as being my favourite. Tyche lives on the moon, dividing her time between the Base, where she’s meant to stay, with only the Brain for company; and the place through the Secret Door, where waits the Magician and various other creatures. Her seemingly happy life is, however, disturbed the day the ants come to the moon. On one level this can be read as a poignant almost-fairytale; it’s sweet, if combined with some rather sad moments because of Tyche’s confusion. However, Rajaniemi does that wonderful thing of suggesting an enormous background to the story, without ever overwhelming the immediate story – and I now really want a novel set in this universe. Please. Because there are all sorts of ideas about humanity that are suggested at but not fully developed.
The main narrative thread of most of these stories so far (the Barnes is perhaps the exception) has encompassed a relatively short timeframe. Not so Stephen Baxter’s “Obelisk.” Beginning with the arrival of Wei Binglin on Mars, as he pilots the Sunflower in after a very difficult voyage, the story follows the next several decades of Binglin’s life as he adapts to Mars, deals with the brash American Bill Kendrick, and both watches Mars develop and assists in that happening. Binglin is an interesting character through which to explore this; he feels a great deal of guilt concerning the Sunflower, and he’s unconvinced, early on, about living planetside. His growth as a character works overall, and I can absolutely agree with how Baxter imagines Mars bootstrapping itself. And the fact that he imagines it as a largely Chinese endeavour is certainly believable, although there’s not a whole lot of Chinese-specific culture to be seen. However, I was troubled by the way Baxter dealt with Xue Ling, Binglin’s adopted daughter. The role she plays seems largely superfluous; certainly the apparent pull she exerts on both Binglin and Kendrick is not required to get them to do what they do. Rather she sometimes seems like an excuse. Her actions at the conclusion of the story were especially problematic, seeming not to fit in at all and feeling instead like gratuitous sentimentality on Baxter’s part, or as if there needed to be some big dramatic Thing to impart some sense of occasion to the story. It was unneeded and I think actually undercut the rest of the story.
Alastair Reynolds’ “Vainglory” is another story that uses two temporal tracks. In the first, Loti Hung is confronted by Vanya Ingvar, and asked some uncomfortable questions about her interactions with a certain Skanda Abrud; while the second is essentially Loti remembering exactly that interaction. While many of the central characters throughout this anthology have been engineer or science-y types (although not all, Tyche in Rajaniemi’s story and Mai is McAuley’s especially), Loti is quite different: she’s an artist. Specifically, a rock artist – someone who carves rock on a massive scale – we’re talking asteroids here. And I love the very idea of a science fiction story that focusses on the possibilities for art in the future, in these far-out locations humanity may find itself in (McAuley does a similar thing). The story is about one of Loti’s commissions, and it not turning out to be quite what she thought; and Ingvar investigating just exactly went on with it. The interaction between the two women is understated and believable, as is that between Loti and Skanda. Again, this quite personal story is set against a much larger backdrop of solar system colonisation, the arrogance of wealth, and questions of justice.
While transportation may be one of the major issues of solar system colonisation, as shown in “Drive” and ” The Road to NPS,” solar system habitation is going to be greatly impacted by something that already affects large swathes of Earth: access to water. In “Water Rights,” by An Owomoyela, this issue is front and centre after an explosion interrupts the water supply for many of the near-Earth colonies. This is of immediate interest to Jordan Owole because, as the owner of an orbiting hydroponics outfit – which naturally has a large reservoir – she’s now become of great interest both to the authorities and to independent orbiting homesteaders. Which is an uncomfortable position to be in, to say the least. While this sounds potentially depressing, Owomoyela pulls a beautiful turn at the end which nearly brought tears to my eyes, and makes it amongst the more obviously optimistic of the anthology.
The ultimate story in this set is from Bruce Sterling, and a weird one it is. “The Peak of Eternal Light” is set on Mercury – a Mercury with incredibly restrictive and quite bizarre gender restrictions, especially when it comes to marriage. There were moments when I, as a woman, found reading this story actively unpleasant; while Sterling may not (probably does not) accept the ideas presented here as worthy, and does indeed go on to critique them to some extent, it was still not an enjoyable experience. There are a number of instances where he veers very close to existing stereotypes that, in a futuristic setting – even with outre accoutrements intended to suggest perhaps that this is new and weird – were depressing to imagine continuing beyond the confines of Earth. Marriages are entirely arranged and intended to be endured, nothing more; couples spend time with one another in strictly regimented ways, and the women appear to live in the equivalent of a harem. The central couple, who refer to each other as Mr and Mrs Peretz, do begin to question some of the limitations placed on them; and I did enjoy the idea that the bicycle, which was indeed a revolutionary form of transportation in its time for women, would find a new lease on life on Mercury. This questioning, though, did not compensate for the overall image of life on that planet. I do not want Sterling’s vision of the future.
Overall, this is an awfully good anthology. And it’s very exciting indeed to read an anthology entirely dedicated to science fiction, and science fiction of what might be called the medium term future; not the immediate collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, nor the humans-spanning-the-galaxy stories (which I do adore, I’ll be honest). It’s an anthology that spans ideas, planets, concepts, personalities and the future of humanity. What’s not to like?
So… I read this ages ago, and while I talked about it on Galactic Suburbia (well, rambled incoherently, probably) I just haven’t got around to writing about it properly. The longer I left it, the harder it was to come to it. Until we get to now, when my pile of books that I want to review is growing rapidly, so obviously the thing to do is to go back to the beginning and get this one done.
I’m sure I had lots of interesting things to say, but I have of course forgotten many of them in the intervening months (it was November that I read it). What I haven’t forgotten is how much I liked it – and before Sean or someone teases me about being Reynolds-obsessed, I wasn’t a huge fan of his last novel, Terminal World, so let’s just accept that I can indeed be objective and move on.
The novel opens with the death of a family matriarch, an event which spins all sorts of interesting consequences especially for one grandson, Geoffrey, and for his sister Sunday as well. They are led by various cryptic clues to caches hidden by their grandmother over an extended period of time – which eventually lead them to discover a secret which will change their family, their family’s business, and the way humanity views its future.
Geoffrey is an intriguing protagonist. He is the black sheep of the family, evincing little interest in the family business – essentially freighting stuff around the solar system – and generally annoying his more committed cousins. His interests instead lie with elephants, conserving them and getting to understand them better. This is such an off-beat love for a science fiction novel that I was immediately delighted, I have to say. His elephantine interests do end up having some bearing on the plot, but not as much as I might have expected; it’s mostly just what he’s into. I also really liked that the family is African; Tanzanian, to be precise. This is just something that is – Africa as a whole has come through into the 22nd century doing fairly well, and taken its place as a developed continent, leading the way in some areas.
This is near-future Earth (by Reynolds standards) – the 22nd century. It’s post-global climate crisis, which wasn’t quite as bad as it might have been but still quite traumatic thankyouverymuch, and there are some moves underway to improve the ecosystem. Much of the solar system is inhabited, to one degree or another – Mars and the Moon quite substantially, understandably thinning out as you move away from the Sun. The economy is going fairly well in most places; politics doesn’t get a huge amount of pagespace. There is new and interesting technology in terms of communication, and transport, and living underwater. This all sounds fairly familiar – either from our world or from standard science fiction – and a nice enough place to live, and it is… until you start realising how insidious the Mechanism is. The Mechanism would have Orwell spinning in his grave. It knows where you are and everyone else is at any given time, it knows what you are feeling, and if you are feeling aggressive it is able to stop you before you act on that aggression. It is CCTV and Google knowing your search history and ID cards taken to a scary degree. And what is perhaps most scary is that Reynolds does not give it a central place in his narrative. It is simply there. It’s accepted as a part of society by most of humanity – not a good part or a bad part, usually, but a necessary part, an obvious part. And if you buck against it – well, you’re a problem.
Overall… interesting, well-rounded characters; well-paced action; nicely developed society with pleasing as well as ominous aspects; and it’s the first in a trilogy. I am really looking forward to the next two.
I will admit that I am enough of a pathetic die-hard fan that I got this anthology off the back of its inclusion of an Alastair Reynolds story; others in the contents page also grabbed my attention, of course, so it wasn’t a completely ridiculous buy. Since saying farewell to Last Short Story I have got interested in reading anthologies again – well, actually, I was never very interested in anthologies before LSS introduced them to me, and then a few years of that burnt me out. Anyway, I was dead keen about giving this one a go.
Unsurprisingly, but unfortunately, it’s quite a mixed bag. Let me go through the stories. (The short version: there are some good, and a couple of very good, stories; plus a whack of indifferent ones.)
Ian McDonald’s “A Smart Well-Mannered Uprising of the Dead” is a delightful take on how social media might interact with local culture in order to impact on the political arena. With the events of the last 18 months this isn’t a radical notion at all, but McDonald here imagines a company offering virtual space for the dead – spirit-houses created by the bereaved for the recently departed. And what’s a virtual space like that without forums, and interaction? It’s really just the next step for the departed themselves to take part in those discussions, and to be commenting on contemporary affairs. I really enjoyed the style of this story as well as the content, although it was a bit confusing to begin with; it jumps from posts written by the dead, to interviews with the website’s creator, to discussions between the relatives of the talking dead. And gradually a picture builds up of what is going on in this country (which I think is never named, but seems to neighbour Mali), and the impact of the dead speaking out. It’s a really great opening to the anthology.
On a completely different wavelength is “The Incredible Exploding Man,” by Dave Hutchinson. Rather than jumping around points of view, as with the McDonald, this story jumps around chronologically but centres on one main event: an accident at a Collider somewhere in the US, and its effects on the people in the room. There’s no black hole as some of the more hysterical media suggested when the LHC was turned on at CERN, but a more subtle impact on the physiology and very existence of the people. It’s fast-paced and features some nicely differentiated characters to bring out some of the ramifications of the event.
Paul di Filippo’s contribution, “Sweet Spots,” is similar to the McDonald in that it involves an individual having an impact on society, but different because it has nothing to do with social media: instead, here an adolescent boy discovers that he can see how to influence events by a word, a nudge, an appropriately directed foot… and of course, there are ramifications, some unforeseen. The story harks to some superhero ideas of great responsibility with great power, and it is interesting to watch Arp (the protagonist) come to certain conclusions himself. I can’t say I particularly liked Arp; he was too genuine an adolescent for that! But again it’s a well-paced story with a clever premise.
With Stephen Baxter’s “Rock Day,” the anthology goes rather melancholy, being about a boy and his dog and a world that is not quite right. Baxter draws out the boy’s curiosity and confusion gently and sympathetically, and although the scenario of the ‘Rock Day’ discussed seems too farfetched (I know, crazy thing to say about a science fiction anthology), the consequences fit all too well into a science fictional universe. All of the stories to this point have been recognisably set on Earth. Stephen Palmer takes us away from that – if not spatially then certainly temporally. “Eluna” imagines a society with what at first looks like a radically different way of doing things, which on closer inspection may not be as different as readers might like. It’s about individuality and curiosity, innovation and tradition and sacrifice. And machines.
Adam Roberts begins his story with a disaster, which might be seen as a bold move. But pretty much all of “Shall I Tell you the Problem with Time Travel?” is concerned with disasters of one sort or another, usually of the fairly significant variety, and it does indeed suggest a potential problem with time travel, which I can’t possibly even allude to here without spoiling what is quite nicely revealed as it progresses. Going forwards and then backwards in time as the story unfolds, this is a very enjoyable if quite horrifying little story about one of science fiction’s more beloved tropes. And taking as his inspiration the revolutionary Che Guevara, Lavie Tidhar imagines a world in which that soldier-cum-poet-cum-politician did not die when he did. There’s only one science fictional element to “The Lives and Deaths of Che Guevara,” and although it’s a crucial one the story could be read as a commentary on the politics of the last forty years or so just as much as science fiction. It ranges across numerous countries and contexts, using interviews and magazine excerpts to break up the plot, and is a quirky and entertaining piece.
Steve Rasnic Tem, in “At Play in the Fields,” offers one of the few stories involving non-human characters. He wonders what it would be like to wake up one day and discover that the world has not only been discovered by aliens, but that it’s also a whole lot later – in years – than when you went to sleep. This is a story about a man and an alien, but also about a man coming to terms with these sorts of profound changes through the mundane objects around him. It’s a quite tactile story, and one to make the reader wonder which of the objects around them might survive long into the future – and what this will say about us as individuals and as a culture. On the other hand, “Yestermorrow” by Richard Salter is concerned with time rather than objects; specifically, what it would be like to always wake up not knowing which part of your life today is, because you are living quite literally from day to day – one day waking up as a baby, the next at forty, but you don’t take that knowledge with you. Which of course means you know when, calendrically speaking, you will die. Certainly presents some interesting problems for the police.
Jaine Fenn’s story is one of exploration that initially seems like it could almost be straight out of Star Trek or StarGate SG1 – a gate to another world, can’t get back through, whatever will we do?! However it is saved from falling into tired tropes thanks to engaging characters and a nicely intriguing twist that suggests some rather interesting things about those characters. In style, it mixes up transmission reports with conventional third-person narrative.
There’s a suggestion of postcolonial ideas about “Eternity’s Children,” from Keith Brooke and Eric Brown. A world that is both a long-term killer of human visitors and the long-term ensurer of their longevity is visited by a representative of the company responsible for it; naturally things do not progress in a straightforward manner. It would have been possible for this story to follow the old idea of white-man-seduced-by-exotic-place, but I think it mostly avoids that by the awareness of the main character, Loftus, of what he is about, and his willingness to think beyond his task.
The penultimate story of the anthology is actually the one I read first and may or may not be the main reason I bought the anthology… “For the Ages,” by Alastair Reynolds, is a wonderful far-future story about the big things – the entirety of cosmology and leaving a message for the ages – and the small things – messy human relationships and just how messy they can get. The characters are finely drawn and utterly believable, the task preposterous and glorious and utterly fitting for the hubris of the human race. It’s easily my favourite story of the entire set.
In “The Best Science Fiction of the Year Three,” Ken Mcleod combines lack of interesting plot (editor searching for stories, French government launches a curious balloon) with lacklustre characters, resulting in a story that utterly fails to compel. The next story was also a disappointment, because although there is a potentially intriguing idea in “The One That Got Away” – ocean creatures are washing up onto the beach in vast quantities, and something might be found within their bodies – Tricia Sullivan does not provide enough political or historical background to explain what is being searched for or why. That could be forgiven if the characters were compelling enough that their quest was an end in itself, but sadly this is not the case.
Looking at a broken father-son relationship, Jack Skillingstead’s “Steel Lake” has both Too Much and Too Little: too much sentimentality, and too much wrong with the father for him to be at all approachable or sympathetic; too little overall point, either in plot or characterisation. Being overly sentimental also characterises “Mooncakes,” a collaboration between Mike Resnick and Laurie Tom. I like stories about spaceships heading out into the unknown and how people cope with the stress of leaving family, but this one left me cold. The ‘all cultures are precious’ line (which I agree with already) was hammered out without a care for subtlety – too much telling, not enough showing – and the family relationship depicted was boring and predictable.
Ian Watson’s “How We Came Back from Mars (A Story that Cannot be Told)” is (maybe) an alien contact story, with a team of explorer (maybe) on Mars managing to get back to Earth a whole lot faster than expected, who then have to deal with the ramifications of people not believing their story, made particularly problematic by the place they arrive back at. It’s an interesting enough premise, but the story tries too hard to be conspiratorial and suggestive without having the atmosphere or characters to pull it off. Sadly, Pat Cadigan’s “You Never Know” also failed to grab me – sad because I usually love Cadigan’s work, and because it means I disliked two out of the three works by women (the third, by Jaine Fenn, is discussed above). The atmosphere – a secondhand shop – and premise – the shop assistant and his experience with a new security system – are approachable and familiar-seeming. The denouement, however, left me confused and grasping for understanding, and not in a positive way.
Sadly, the last story of the anthology definitely falls into the ‘indifferent’ camp. When a writer writes about a writer, it’s hard for me at least not to wonder about the level of congruency going on. For Peter Hamilton’s sake, I hope there is no congruence between the writer in “Return of the Mutant Worms” and himself, because the thought of having an editor bring up an unpublished 21-year-old story and offer to publish it must be nightmarish to many successful authors. Anyway, this is ultimately a smug and unsatisfying little story that does little good for the memory of the anthology as a whole.
One last thing to mention: I found the author notes preceding each story generally a bit tawdry. They seemed to be trying for a mix of bibliography + interesting factoid, and did not often hit the right note; there was too much effort at sounding quirky for it to be genuinely appealing.
In which we bid farewell to the queen of dragons, squee about 48 years of Doctor Who, dissect the negative associations with “girly” fandoms such as Twilight, and find some new favourites in our reading pile. We can be downloaded from iTunes or got at Galactic Suburbia.
48th anniversary of Doctor Who!
A website devoted to The Weird and created by Luis Rodrigues. The project is the brainchild of editing-writing team Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.
Critiquing the Bigotry of Twilight-haters, not the same thing as defending Twilight
Call for contributions/suggestions for our GS Award.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Once Upon a Time; The Courier’s New Bicycle, Kim Westwood
Alex: The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan; Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds; The Glass Gear, in Valente’s Omikuji Project; also watched Thor.
Tansy: All Men of Genius, Lev A.C. Rosen; God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Comics: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (abandoned); Batgirl the Greatest Stories Ever Told
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I read this novella in my lovely hardback version of Godlike Machines. It’s a re-read, since I read it last year for Last Short Story and had to re-read it now to reassure myself that it really was as good as I thought it was in the lead-up to the all-important Voting In The Hugos. And yes, it still really really is.
What’s often awesome about novellas is that they give a certain amount of tantalising world-building, but leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. Reynolds does that here; it’s maybe 40 years from now, set in the Second Soviet of Russia. There’s all sorts of wildly interesting stuff hinted at, about Russia and the rest of the world, but it takes a back seat to the plot. And it’s a marvellous story. A trio of cosmonauts were sent out to rendezvous with a mysterious artefact on its third go-around of a 12-year elliptical orbit… and things proceed. More than ‘just’ a first-contact story (or is it?), though, the story is told some years later as one of the cosmonauts visits an astronomer whose outlandish theories about the artefact – the Matryoshka – had been derided.
So there’s fascinating world-building, a really cool story, and intriguing character development too. I loved this story originally, and I still do.
(It’s now older than me!) (just)
On Joanna Russ: some reminiscences (and here), and Samuel Delaney’s interview with her (transcript only).
Alisa: Madigan Mine, Kirstyn McDermott, Fringe Season 3
Alex: Deep State, Walter Jon Williams; Shattered City, and Love and Romanpunk, Tansy Rayner Roberts; Pushing Ice, Alastair Reynolds; Troubletwisters, Garth Nix and Sean Williams.
Tansy: Doctor Who & Big Finish audio plays (The Eighth Doctor Adventures).============
Announcing upcoming Spoilerific Book Club on Joanna Russ with particular focus on The Female Man, How To Suppress Women’s Writing and short story “When it Changed.” Read along with us!
Galactic Chat interviews Glenda Larke
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(Amusingly, I blogged about this book the first time I read it… five years ago!)
So my love of Reynolds’ work is becoming embarrassingly well known. To the point where a number of people at Natcon asked me which one they should read. The first person to do so admitted that they are not huge fans of very far-future SF, which therefore makes House of Suns – probably my favouritest of his books ever – a bit inaccessible. And I wasn’t sure how she felt about the slightly baroque-feeling SF that is Revelation Space. So I suggested Pushing Ice, because I cannot bring myself to recommend Terminal World (I am still getting over that disappointment and will have to read it again sometime to figure out whether I am being silly or not). And I recommended it to a few other people, too… and then realised that I hadn’t actually read it since that first time. I’ll admit to being a little worried that maybe it wasn’t as good as I remembered, because then I would be responsible for other people not liking Reynolds, and then MY LIFE WOULD BE OVER.
Anyway, the prologue made me actually wince when I read it… because it’s set 18,000 years in the future. Oops. Happily, it’s a fairly accessible 18,000 years in the future, because it’s about a politician making deals and proposals. Her name is Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird, and the parliament is made up of several solar systems, but still – it’s familiar. And then it goes waaay back in time to 2057, where Rockhopper is an asteroid-mining ship about to be sent on a rather extraordinary mission. Janus, one of Saturn’s moons, suddenly starts acting in a most un-moon-like manner, which is of course something to be investigated.
What happens during the chase, and after catching it, is what the plot revolves around. But it’s not a story about technology, or a first-contact story (although there is some of that), or even really about the exploration of space. Instead, it’s about the human interactions that take place in situations like this: a small number of people confined together for an extended period of time; a small number of people forced to make difficult, sometimes lift-threatening decisions. And at heart it revolves around the friendship of two women: the captain of Rockhopper, Bella Lind, and her best friend Svetlana.
The plot, while linear (with the exception of the prologue), does not simply follow the spacers through their adventures, one after the other. Instead it skips forward several times, sometimes over decades. After the initial adventure of chasing down the ‘moon’, and the repercussions of doing so, the narrative essentially consists of extended snapshots. It shows how society changes – and remains static – over those periods; it looks at how human interactions change, and how small things impact on major decisions. How one grudge can change the way a whole community works.
I loved it. Again. I loved the space bits and, I guess, the more specifically SF bits; they weren’t too tech-heavy, but definitely detailed enough to be enthralling. The interactions with aliens (spoiler!) were cleverly, and sympathetically, and subtly, done.
I loved the depiction of how a society might function in an enclosed space, and over such a long time, too. It’s probably a bit romantic in that the society doesn’t completely implode, but I’m fine with that – there are other places for reading about societies that disintegrate horrifically.
I liked the characters. There are none that I can say that I actually loved – they’re just not that sort of people, which I perversely liked, because it pushes them more towards the believability end of the spectrum. Neither Bella nor Svetlana, leaders at different points in the narrative, come out as particularly rosy – one looks slightly better, at times, but both are, simply, very human. Flaws, frailties, grudges, narrow-mindedness, ambitions… hopes, dreams, and sacrifice.
So, I’m happy with having recommended this! It’s a fairly good example, I think, of what Reynolds writes. An awesome reach, cool characters, and galactic-yet-still-human ideas.
I’m enjoying re-reading.
Redemption Ark sort of takes up where Revelation Space leaves off, but uses quite a number of different characters to present the narrative. Where the Conjoiners were just another group of weirdos in the first book, here two of the main points of view are from Conjoiners – who end up having quite different takes on the events. There are a couple of familiar characters, happily – who have changed in some ways quite substantially, but of course in many ways stay the same – as well as some other new ones, including one of the most ‘normal’ characters Reynolds has used to present action in any of the Rev Space books.
The narrative? Revelation Space hinted at Inhibitors, a machine race of some sort tasked with inhibiting the development of fleshy sentience into the wider galaxy; Dan Sylveste, in his arrogance, rang their bell. <i>Redemption Ark</i> – along with a lot of side-stories – addresses how the people of Resurgam, as well as some other concerned galactic citizens, might deal with this particular threat to their existence. Actually, it’s worse than that, since most of the people on Resurgam have absolutely no idea what is going on. It’s the other people – with mixed motives – who have to take action on their behalf. Enter two very different Conjoiners, some hyperpigs, and ordinary space-faring citizens, and the race is on to decide who is going to get the weapons that alone might have a chance of dealing with that rather intimidating threat.
I love this stuff.
As I said, there are a lot of sub-plots going on. There’s the whole back-story of the Conjoiners (more on them later), there’s the sad story of Antoinette and how she ends up involved in all of this, there’s those recurring characters and what’s happened to them between books as well as what they’re doing now (se me avoiding spoilers?), as well as an update on Resurgam and Chasm City. It’s this depth, this chunkiness, that all manages to make sense and add to the overall story, that I adore about these books. If you stripped all this possibly-extraneous material out you’d have maybe a 250-300 page book (rather than 650-odd pages), and it would probably be quite good, but… it would be missing the marvellous detail, the feel of it being a messy and oh-so-real society, that I love.
The characters are of course a wonderful part of that messiness. The Conjoiners, it turns out, are a society created by one Galliana in an attempt to bring humanity ever closer to one another – by being conjoined by a neural network that allows people to communicate essentially telepathically, and see things that other people are projecting, and even read further into others’ minds than simply their surface thoughts. The idea was to create a transparent, and presumably egalitarian, society. It’s a lovely utopian vision, and there are of course dark hints that way back when it was being established – on Mars, 400 years prior to the book – that it caused wars with those afraid of that vision. I know I’ve read about that back story, somewhere; it might have been one of Reynolds’ short stories. In Redemption Ark the Conjoiners are represented primarily to the reader through Clavain – an early, somewhat unwilling recruit – and the paradoxically ambitious Skade. These two characters are developed thoroughly and, actually, quite messily; their motivations don’t always make immediate sense, they are conflicted, and they make horrendous decisions in the heat of battle. I love Clavain; I respect Skade but I would definitely want to keep her at arms’ length. Preferably someone else’s arms.
There are other new characters. Antoinette Bax, ship-owner and budding transporter, is the fairly naive and hapless everywoman (along with her partner Xavier) who gets dragged along almost against her will. She’s one of the few sections I think could have been excised without the overall narrative losing much complexity and wonderfulness (did I mention I love this novel?). Then there’s Scorpio, a hyperpig. The pigs get mentioned in Chasm City, but they don’t play much of a part; their backstory is fleshed out a little more here, but we still have to wait for another story – I think The Prefect? and one or two shorts – to get much detail. Still, the idea that a new intelligent species could have arisen out of human/pig experiments aimed at making human organ replacement easier is fascinating.
It’s a great book. There’s tension on a galactic scale, and on a personal level; there’s technology, and overcoming its limits in potentially dangerous ways; there are cameos from earlier books; there is witty dialogue, and hinted-at dark pasts, and just wonderful writing too. #fangirl